In Mexico, you can’t just use any old pot to make mole.
The best moles, it’s generally known, are scraped and mingled together in a clay pot, preferably one that fits an extra-large wooden spoon. The pots conduct heat well and the clay adds an extra touch of flavor. And in my foreign eyes, you cannot achieve the perfect mole moonscape without them.
In Puebla, the birthplace of mole poblano, many cooks buy their pots in the Barrio de La Luz, where artisans still make them almost entirely by hand. I learned about the the neighborhood during Puebla’s International Mole Festival last May. A video had been filmed in one of the barrio’s workshops and it traced the pot-making process almost from beginning to end — from soaking the dirt and kneading it, to firing it in an oven. Watching the video gave me chills.
(Here’s a link to the mole pot video — you really have to watch it.)
Last week when I was in Puebla to buy my chiles en nogada ingredients, I asked Rebecca if we could pop by the Barrio de La Luz to explore. We invited Alonso Hernandez of Mesón Sacristía to join us. He’s one of my favorite Puebla gastronomic historians and one of my favorite people in general.
We ventured out early one morning with Alonso leading the way. We stopped at a doorway clustered with glazed mole pots, and an older gentleman welcomed us as if it were common for strangers to show up unannounced. He led us down a hallway and into an open patio, where dozens of unvarnished and finished clay pots jugs lay in rows.
This was a group workspace. Each artisan had his own small room to create, and they shared an oven. Rebecca and Alonso and I peered into each doorway and tried not to bother anyone. One man was making an incense holder, known as a sumerio, by candlelight. The pottery wheel squeaked with each push of the foot pedal.
In the back, three men loaded up a deep oven, hoisting mole pots onto their backs. Alonso said the finished pots could feed 500 people.
I eyed all of the mole pots longingly. I told myself that it was not really my time yet, that I had a gas stove that barely fit a 3 1/2 quart Le Creuset, and what was I going to do with a mole pot that fed 500? “Someday,” I told Alonso and Rebecca, “I am going to have my mole pot in my backyard, and I’m going to have massive parties and feed everyone.” They smiled at me.
That day I learned something new about mole — the love in this dish starts with the pot. Way before toasting and grinding and frying the chiles, and grinding the peanuts into powder, and charring the tomatoes until they turn into soft, mushy pulp, there is clay that was physically stepped on by human feet, kneaded by human hands and carried to an oven on a man’s back.
The pot demands our respect, too.